I learned a lesson in detachment a few days ago. At the close of five weeks of pilgrimage in India during the holy month of Kartik, I was deftly relieved of my valuables by two young pirates in an auto rickshaw.
The sun was shining as I walked the two hour circular route around sacred Vrindavan town, and we were almost at the end of the circuit. The route passes ancient temples, through areas of field and forest, and clusters of shops and houses. At that time in the morning everyone is busy, creaking and coughing to life, lighting fires, bathing and taking care of cows and buffaloes.
Circling the the town is an act of prayer and a way of showing deep respect. As I walked I thought of the experiences of the past weeks – so many rich and beautiful moments in the company of sages and saintly souls. Vrindavan is a place of external contradictions. It is fast losing its rural charm to new hotels and an avalanche of plastic, yet remains a place of pilgrimage for billions. Despite its environmental struggles it somehow never loses its sacred atmosphere. I felt blessed to have been able to be there for almost a month, and prayed to be able to absorb all the lessons that I had learned.
On the last quiet stretch before reaching the busy main road again, I heard an auto rickshaw pull up close behind me. Since this is a regular experience on Vrindavan’s small, busy roads, I didn’t turn around. Suddenly I felt my bag being pulled from my body. I thought I had accidentally got caught on the rickshaw until I looked up at the laughing drivers, pulling the strap. They accelerated. It snapped. They went faster. I ran for a few moments, yelling ‘Hey! Hey!’ Then they were gone, and only the parrots squawked overhead. My friends gaped from behind, ‘Did that really just happen?’
There was nothing to do but continue walking. I knew there was no getting the bag back – they had disappeared from sight long ago and their rickshaw was one of hundreds in the town. I started to say goodbye to the contents, reflecting on the significance of it all.
Each of the items I had in my purse were things that I find some shelter in; that offer some feeling of security: My iPhone, a constant companion around the world over the last four years; my journal, full of what I regarded as important thoughts, notes and drawings from the whole journey; and a hefty wad of British pounds to be exchanged (that I had forgotten was inside). Communication with the world, my mind and my financial security. The only thing left in my hand was my wooden japa mala – my chanting beads. My eyes moistened for a few moments as my mind threw up reasons to be frustrated or anxious. But I gradually felt lighter.
Hundreds of renunciates had lined the path that morning, sitting with begging bowls, dressed in simple white or orange cloth and decorated with sacred markings. None of them owned iPhones, and certainly didn’t have more money than the few coins they received that day. Some read from holy books, or sang whilst playing small cymbals. Whilst they may have had their own thoughts to write down, those I saw with pen and paper were repeatedly writing the sacred names of Radha and Krishna in A5 lined school books.
I realised that losing these few little things was only the start. From the moment we are born we are already losing our youth; and as soon as we acquire any possession, the days are numbered until it leaves us again. We are bound to lose the company of the ones we love, bound to eventually lose the good health we treasure, bound to lose our looks and memory and ultimately our own body.
One of the names of Krishna is Hari, which means ‘one who takes away’. A devotee prays for his Lord to remove everything that comes in the way of their eventual reunion, even if it is not always easy to swallow. I can’t say that I’m able to sincerely pray for that yet, but losing just a little bit whilst in such a holy place was a reminder to me of what I really treasure, and what can never be replaced. The company of great souls, the singing of the name of the Lord, and the opportunity to serve – these are the things that I know I have to learn to cry for and cling to with spiritual greed.
So I don’t have any pictures of my trip. Only a handful of recordings. Nothing written. But I do have impressions in my heart, like footprints in wet concrete. Hours spent in kirtan, hours spent on prayerful walks, hours spent listening to uplifting discourse. And a reminder that the surest investment is in that which can never be lost.